Most teachers know what it feels like to buried under a pile of marking (or what I call “grading”). Once I spent the entire week of Toussaint vacation grading exams, and it took more time than an actual week of teaching. The only bright spot was finding hilarious mistranslations and other mirth-inducing wranglings of the English language.
Please don’t think I’m mocking my former students. I’m painfully aware of all the mistakes I’ve made in my second language too! I believe it’s better to guess and be wrong than to not try at all, because that’s how you get better. There’s no shame in mistakes, and I do not mean to imply anything to the contrary.
But sometimes you’ve been reading the same translation exam for two days and someone writes, “the path that sniffled all around the hangover” (instead of the “path that wound along the cliff”) and it’s just funny. I have a whole list of them and they still make me laugh.
How about that time when “maladroit” (“awkward”) turned into “left-handed,” “stupid,” and “badlucky”? Or the time “the president was smashed during the elections”? Or that other time when a bunch of students left the L out of “clock”? (Yeah.) Or the most enigmatic of all – “Then he started to speak in his shave.” Can you guess what that was supposed to be? (It was, “Then it started to drizzle.” Really not sure what happened there.)
These two little anecdotes stick out in my mind because I thought they were pretty cute. Both students translated French expressions word-for-word into English – it didn’t quite work out, but it gave me a giggle.
Let’s get back to our sheeps
I used to teach a phonetics/oral skills class where the students turned in audio recordings for their final exams. One of my students, who actually spoke English quite fluidly, went off on a bit of a tangent in his recording. Then he declared enthusiastically, “But now, let’s get back to our sheeps!”
If that seems like the most random thing ever, here’s some context: There’s an expression in French (“Revenons à nos moutons”*) which literally means, “Let’s go back to our sheep,” but figuratively means, “Let’s get back to business” or “Let’s get back on topic.” But “Let’s get back to our sheeps” is way cuter. Let’s start saying that instead.
(*Now I actually use this expression to test machine translation engines to see if they will give me the figurative meaning or the literal one, and it always reminds me of this student!)
The small mouse
In my last year of teaching, I had a group of students that I just loved. They were just a really nice group of kids – I still remember them fondly. During the semester, we studied the past tense construction “used to” (e.g. “I used to hate cheese but now I’m addicted to Comté”). On the midterm, one student wrote, “I used to believe in the small mouse.”
The small mouse? What?! But this sentence makes complete sense when you know that in French, “the small mouse” (“la petite souris”) is the Tooth Fairy. Ohhhh! Luckily, I had just learned that the week before so I didn’t think she was crazy.
I do think it’s kind of crazy that the French tooth fairy is a mouse, though.
Do you have any stories like these? Which expressions make absolutely no sense when translated literally?